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Authors: Gina McMurchy-Barber

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Free as a Bird

Gina McMurchy-Barber


Copyright © Gina McMurchy-Barber, 2010

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise (except for brief passages for purposes of review) without the prior permission of Dundurn Press. Permission to photocopy should be requested from Access Copyright.

Edited by Michael Carroll
Designed by Courtney Horner
Printed and bound in Canada by Webcom

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

McMurchy-Barber, Gina

Free as a bird / Gina McMurchy-Barber.

ISBN 978-1-55488-447-6

I. Title.

PS8625.M86F74 2009      jC813'.6      C2009-903256-2

1  2  3  4  5     14  13  12  11  10

We acknowledge the support of the
Canada Council for the Arts
and the
Ontario Arts Council
for our publishing program. We also acknowledge the financial support of the
Government of Canada
through the
Book Publishing Industry Development Program
The Association for the
Export of Canadian Books
, and the
Government of Ontario
through the
Ontario Book Publishers
Tax Credit program
, and the
Ontario Media Development Corporation

Care has been taken to trace the ownership of copyright material used in this book. The author and the publisher welcome any information enabling them to rectify any references or credits in subsequent editions.

J. Kirk Howard, President

Dundurn Press    
Gazelle Book Services Limited
Dundurn Press
3 Church Street, Suite 500
White Cross Mills
2250 Military Road
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
        High Town, Lancaster, England        
Tonawanda, NY
M5E 1M2
U.S.A. 14150

For my parents,
Gene and Murray McMurchy,
whose dedication to my sister, Jane, taught me everything
I need to know about unconditional love



chapter 1

chapter 2

chapter 3

chapter 4

chapter 5

chapter 6

chapter 7

chapter 8

chapter 9

chapter 10

author's note


I would like to thank my generous friend, Victoria Bartlett, for her time and wise guidance; Jane Cassie and Karen Autio for their helpful comments; the Surrey Public Library's Writer-in-Residence Program and Mansel Robinson for his gentle feedback and insights; and my friend, Kathy, for setting me straight on a few facts.

Ombudsman Dulcie McCallum's report,
The Need to
Know: Administrative Review of Woodlands School
, and Michael de Courcy's photographic exhibition/archive entitled
Asylum: A Long Last Look at Woodlands
, were very helpful to me in re-creating the atmosphere and attitudes of the time.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank those former residents of Woodlands who have spoken out about their experiences — giving me and others a better understanding of what they had to endure.

chapter 1

My name's Ruby Jean Sharp an I growed up in Woodlands School. That wasn't a nice place for a liddle kid — nope, not a nice place a'tall. Sometimes the uniforms was happy with me — that's how come they called me Sharp-as-a-Tack. But there was other times when they wasn't happy — that's cause I'd scratch or bite or wet my pants. Uniforms said I did that cause I was a bad kid … said I had a behaviour problem. Maybe they was right. But maybe I jus dint like bein bossed round all the time or sittin all day with nothin to do cept go stir crazy. Maybe it was cause I dint like standin naked in the tub room an gettin sprayed down with cold water. Whatever it was made me behave bad — them uniforms had ways to make me stop. Sometimes they hit me or shouted an called me names like retard. They called me that on account of me not bein so smart.

I dint always scratch an bite an pee my pants — nope, not a'tall. It started after Mom an Harold left me at Woodlands School when I was eight years old. Can't say why they called it a school — a school's a place you go for learnin an then after you get to go home. I never learnt much bout ledders and numbers, an I sure never got to go home — nope, only stayed at Woodlands all day an all night. I lived on Ward 33.

Mom said cause I wasn't so smart I dint knowed too many things. Maybe she was right, but I sure membered the day she left me at Woodlands — yup, I membered everythin bout it. First thing that mornin Mom said to put on my good dress — the one Gramma gave me with the white polka dots. After a long drive we went through a big gate an parked the car. Walkin up the path I held Mom's hand, an Barbra too — Barbra was my best doll. Harold walked hind us — quiet as a mouse. Harold was my mom's boyfriend. I guess Mom an Harold was mad at me that day, cause they dint talk or smile or even look at me.

We came to a big yellow buildin but the door was locked — yup, locked tight. Then a man in white opened the door an we followed him upstairs. I liked hearin our footsteps boomin all the way to the top so I stomped my feet hard to make it louder. Mom squeezed my hand an said, “Stop it, Ruby Jean. Just stop it.”

When we got to the top floor there was another locked meddal door. I thought it sure was a awful good thing the man in white had so many keys so's we could get in all them locked doors. When we walked down the hall there was lotsa kids. Only they dint look like real kids — I think maybe cause they wasn't happy. I said hello to some of em, but no one said hello back. Some kids drooled an made moanin noises when we walked by. Others crowded round, touchin my hair an Mom's shoulder. Harold got mad when one of the big ones tried to hug him.

I asked Mom why the kids dint look happy, but she squeezed my hand an said, “Stop it, Ruby Jean. Just stop it.”

Then we came to nother big door that was locked. It had a liddle window high up — only the big people could see through it. The man in white took out his keys again an unlocked that big green door. That was when I looked inside an saw lots of brown meddal beds. There was a window too — it had thick meddal bars, but was too high for me to look outta. I thought this mus be a place for bad people, an it was a awful good thing they had locks on all the doors — yup, awful good thing.

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